Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Science and Torah (again) in the Jewish Press

A letter to the editor in today's Jewish Press (last one on the page) regarding Rabbi Slifkin's new book caught my attention.

In the letter, a person (a doctor, by the title in his name) takes Rabbi Slifkin to task for accepting science over Torah (which is not necessarily what he does... but we'll leave that point alone for the moment). He writes:

It’s a simple matter to present various midrashim and Talmudic dictums which seemingly do not jibe with modern science and then suggest that our rabbinic teachings must therefore be flawed. The fly in Slifkin’s ointment is that science – yes, “holy science” – is by no means infallible. In fact, scientific information is subject to constant change.

In this last point, he is certainly correct. Science does change and, in fact, never presents itself as being infallable. Indeed, a hypotheses that is not falsifiable is not a scientific hypothesis. Science relies upon peer review and demands that if a new hypothesis is put forward, that it be tested and an attempt to disprove it be made.

He then continues:

I am no prophet, but I can predict with certainty that within twenty years most of what the scientific community presently believes will be relegated to the dustbin of history.

Really? Within twenty years most of the science that we know is going to be disproven (I'm assuming that's what he means by "be relegated to the dustbin of history")? Somehow, I find this statement highly unlikely. While there will certainly be some things that change, I'm positive that the most basic scientific facts that we know of -- that are the bedrock of future advances in science -- are not going to change in the next hundred years, let alone in the next twenty.

  • The age of the universe is not going to suddenly be reduced to 6000 years in the next twenty years.
  • The studies of archeology, geology, genetics, chemistry, biology, zoology and many other disciplines which show the earth (and life upon it) to be more than 6000 years old are not going to disappear in the next twenty years.
  • The four basic forces in the universe are not going to disappear in the next twenty years.
  • Einstein's theories of relativity, the Laws of Thermodynamics and many other scientific theories are not going to disappear for a long, long, time -- and even if they are changed, the changes will certainly only be minor tweakings -- not wholesale revolutions.

The fact that the letter writer (assuming he is a medical doctor -- he could be a Doctor of Divinity or hold some other non-scientific doctorate) is a doctor is all the more scary. Yes, medical science is changing at a rapid pace as we learn more about the human body, genetics and the like. But the basic underpinnings of the things that are taught in the medical schools today are not likely to change anytime soon.

He continues onward:

It’s the height of foolishness to abandon the truths given by Hashem to Moshe Rabbeinu more than three thousand years ago, and faithfully recorded by our Sages in the Talmud and midrashim, because of slavish belief in scientific notions that will not survive their adherents.

And, I suppose, this is a sticky point: If you maintain that the midrashim and everything contained in the Talmud was given to Moshe at Sinai and faithfully transmitted down, unaltered in any way from one generation to the next (something that I find highly unlikely and possibly the subject of a future post) and that they are literally God-given truth, then you would probably take this view. However, you don't have to posit this at all. You can certainly posit that midrashim either don't have to be taken 100% literally, or else that they can be viewed as embellishments on existing legends (not to be taken to mean falsehoods) that are used to teach valuable moral lessons. You can view the scientific statements in the Talmud as being a reflection of the science and folklore of the day, and not as God-given truths. When viewed this way, I don't have to worry about the Gemara losing it's validity because the sun doesn't go behind a curtain at night or because half-earthen mice don't exist.

The good doctor's last point (that the scientific principles currently espoused won't survive their adherents) is very interesting. I'm fairly certain that the Church said the same thing about Galileo, Darwin and other people whose scientific statements have been validated throughout the years.

The Wolf


The Hedyot said...

> Einstein's theories of relativity...are not going to disappear for a long, long, time...

Ohhh...bad day to pick that as an example! See this for more on how that just might be the case.

(But I do agree with your overall premise.)

Anonymous said...

The point is that zoology (our assertions that mice don't grow from dirt or salamanders from fire) is certainly a much more stable science that theoretical physics.

Anonymous said...

You can find a bunch of info on Dr. Stern by using Google "Dr. Yaakov Stern". Nothing bad, just info.

Since he is trying to get his point of view out there, I consider it no Loshon Hara to point out these:
And this

This Dr. Stern is definitely opinionated and not afraid if his views offend others.

Yaacov David Shulman said...

And his mother wears army boots.

Big-S Skeptic said...

I think Dr. Yaakov Stern is actually a dentist. In any event, his knowledge of science is so minuscule as to make any of his opinions irrelevant.

bluke said...

His comment about 20 years ago is simply foolish. Let's go back to 1987 and see how much of science has been thrown in history's dustbin. The answer is basically none. Let's go back another 10 years, again the answer is basically none.

David said...

Of the four examples that you said would not change in the next twenty years, I only see how two of them can be a contradiction to the Torah:

# The age of the universe is not going to suddenly be reduced to 6000 years in the next twenty years.
# The studies of archeology, geology, genetics, chemistry, biology, zoology and many other disciplines which show the earth (and life upon it) to be more than 6000 years old are not going to disappear in the next twenty years.
And both of them are regarding the age of the universe.

I think this issue can be addressed fairly simply and satisfactorily: just as Adam was created a twenty year old man, and the tree of knowledge was a mature tree and not a seed, also the whole universe was created mature. Basically: in six days, G-d created a mature world (however old that is, even billions of years old).

Anonymous said...

While I agree with general thrust of your post I can't help but struggle with your closing paragraphs.

If we cannot be certain that todays Oral Law is that which was given to Moses, hoe can we be sure that the Torah is free of insertitions or errors?

I have faith that the overhwleming majority of both the Oral & Written Law is very close to the original, and that those that inhabbit the lower world have neither the knowledge or ability to extract the fallacies (if they exist) from the truth... It seems more logical to accept our scripture in it's entirity - rather than attempt to judge which content is divine in origin and which is man made.

BrooklynWolf said...


I posted about your hypothesis here.


You make an interesting point. However, if some of it is demonstrably false and it *sounds* like something that would belong to folklore (a good example of something that sounds "folklore-ish" that comes to mind is the formula for seeing sheidim at the beginning of Berachos) then it's likely that is folklore and not from Sinai.

The Wolf

David said...

I read the other post and its a good point, you can even add that the Y chromosome should go back to Noach, which is less than 6,000.
However, the dating based on genetic mutation on the Y-chromosome is not a "bedrock of future advances in science" that will definetly not change in the next 20 years and therefore I think its not very relevant to this post where you were saying that basic scientific facts disagree with a literal reading of the Torah and these facts are not going to change in the next twenty years.
So going back to this post: of the four things you mentioned that wont change in the next 20 years, I dont think any of them contradict a literal reading of the Torah.
You see my point was that I dont see how the basic science stuff (that probably wont change in the next 20 years)contradict a literal reading of the Torah.